PED Users Should Not Be Denied Entry into the Hall of Fame

Last week, I wrote a post about which active players should be inducted into the Hall of Fame. I didn’t expect it to be too controversial, but it generated a lot of conversation. The question: how should we treat PED users when their names come up for consideration on the Hall of Fame ballot?

My answer: absolutely not. Two big reasons why:

#1 It Wouldn’t Be Consistent With Hall of Fame Precedent

Precent is enormously important to the Hall of Fame. We find out which players are deserving of entry by comparing them to past players who were also granted entry. Like in common law tradition, we should make changes to this slowly and with extreme caution. Denying entry to PED users would be a gross violation of tradition.

Baseball has a long and storied history of cheating in dozens of different ways. Many of the greatest players of all time – all Hall of Fame inductees – were either caught cheating or have admitted to it afterwards. Some great examples:

  • Legendary manager and third baseman John McGraw was notorious for tripping, blocking, and obstructing base runners. He used to hold on to players’ belts while they stood on 2nd base. One batter, knowing this was coming, once disconnected his belt, leaving it in McGraw’s hand while he scored. McGraw’s cheating single-handedly drove baseball to bring more than one umpire to games. Ty Cobb was a similarly dirty player.
  • The ball-doctoring era. Some of baseball’s best pitchers of the middle of the century were infamous for doctoring balls. Yankee legend Whitey Ford used to cut balls with his wedding ring, or let Elston Howard do it when the umpires were calling. Gaylord Perry, one of the best pitchers of all time, wrote a book after his career about the myriad of tricks he used to doctor balls, increasing the life of his curveball considerably. His techniques became such a spectacle that he was routinely inspected on the mound, or asked to change his equipment. Perry would taunt umpires who would search him for vaseline by saying, ‘No, its not there.”
  • Corked bats have been ubiquitous in baseball for some time. Sammy So isn’t (yet) a Hall of Famer, but he was famously caught in 2003 using a corked bat. Former Yankee great Graig Nettles once broke his bat (hitting a home run in the process), only to find dozens of super-balls spill out onto the field.
These kinds of offenses are what suspensions are for. They have never been used to justify excluding someone from the Hall of Fame. Really good players will lie, cheat, and steal to help their teams win games. This is a good thing. Professional sports are hyper competitive, and its players are too. I great player is someone with a single-minded focus on winning games. They move one way to stretch rules or test enforcement, then MLB bites back. That’s how it should work.
The only precedent establish is that players should be excluded from the Hall for gambling on baseball. I’d suggest that this is categorically different from breaking rules in order to help your team win.

#2 We Don’t Know Who Used PEDs, Or What Their Effect Was

Who used PEDs? Go ahead, think of the list in your head. That list is incomplete. We know of a few high-profile players who were heavily suspected of using PEDs, a few who admitted it when asked under oath, a few names vaguely mentioned in the Mitchell Report, and a small number of positive drug tests. That’s it. The vast majority of PED users are likely anonymous.

When we start to penalize people for PED use, we are doing so using our impressions of those people. Many Hall of Fame voters proved this in the most recent HOF balloting, by publicly refusing to vote for Jeff Bagwell, on the basis that he “looked too good” to do it without performance enhancing drugs. Bagwell has never once been implicated in any way of using PEDs. How far should we carry the witch hunt? Should Alex Rodriguez be excluded, but Andy Pettitte be considered? Barry Bonds included, but Sammy So excluded?

And fact is, we don’t know what effect performance enhancing drugs had on players. Mark McGuire was a tremendous home run masher when he was 16 years old. I believe he still holds the home run record for high schoolers in California. Maybe steroids added a few to this total, or maybe he was going to break records all along. Does anyone think that Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens, or Pudge Rodriguez wouldn’t be clear Hall of Famers without PEDs? Those guys were elite talents from the moment they hit professional baseball. I’d argue that ball doctoring has a much clearer impact on the game than steroids.

Unless you want to 100% exclude anyone whose name has ever even sniffed PEDs, or people who had “suspicious performances” like Luis Gonzalez in 2001, there is no fair or equitable way to apply this standard. Furthermore, Jose Canseco has made it clear that PED use was commonplace in the 1980s, and possibly earlier. This is not a new phenomenon.

But that’s me. There is plenty of room for disagreement here. Discuss. Am I wrong? And if so, why?

About EJ Fagan

E.J. Fagan been blogging about Yankee baseball since 2006. He is a Ph.D. student at University of Texas at Austin.

13 thoughts on “PED Users Should Not Be Denied Entry into the Hall of Fame

  1. Thanks for the correction on McGraw’s position – wrote this quickly while eating lunch. While other players did use those kinds of dirty tactics, McGraw is widely credited with being the worst / on the cutting edge in their regard.

    Also, PEDs were just as widespread too :)

  2. Nice article. I think you bring up a solid point. I would just worry about pissing off the current Hall of Famers. While that certainly shouldn’t be enough to keep someone from getting in, there are a few who said they would boycott and I can’t help but feeling that there might actually be fans who show up to protest such an action. It’s probably overly romantic of me, but I’d rather not see that go down at Cooperstown. It might be a while before these guys get in.

    BTW, calling McGraw was primarily a third baseman and he was by far not the only one who used to do that stuff. In the 1800’s that stuff was pretty wide spread.

  3. I’m with you, E.J. – cheating is cheating, and baseball decided to let the cheaters in a long time ago, so why change now unless you’re going to clean house [hall]?

    Didn’t amphetamines just recently become illegal? (like last 10 yrs) i think i remember johnny damon saying if they couldn’t have speed, you were going to see some crappy games come august because everyone would be just too tired to play well. can you imagine stepping in against someone who throws 95 AND they are all hopped up on speed? i seem to remember david wells saying (in his book) that there was always two pots of coffee in mlb club houses: ‘regular and unleaded.’ regular was coffee with speed in it and unleaded was just plain coffee.

    and roger maris isn’t in the hall of fame – that really irks me.

  4. I agree 100%. The other points are that everyone is acting like writers and owners had no idea what was going on. That seems like complete bs to me. Everyone knew what was going on and at the very least turned their backs to it as 400ft home runs and big offense made the owners and everyone involved in the game a ton of cash. A lot of the stuff guys were using werent even expressly against the rules. While they may have been illegal, so is a DUI and that isnt going to leave a guy out of the hall.
    For writers now to take it upon themselves to decide who was and who wasnt using is absurd. Everyone knows what era these guys played in, and will look on anyone in the hall as having possibly used roids and rightly so, as the odds are they did at some point. There will be an unofficial asterix next to everyone from the roids era, that should be good enough. The last people I want legislating morality in baseball is some of these guys who pass themselves off as writers.

    • agreed! when the yankees got jason giambi, i remember talking with total strangers in the bleachers about how we didn’t want him because he was a roid user – everyone knew what was going on.

  5. Great article–it says it all very well. I agree 100%.

    The only things that one could add, are the numerous cases of players using uppers, speed, and God knows what else in the 1970’s. Also, the many, many alcoholics in the early part of last century–did this hurt them (probably) or help (doubtful). Baseball as a competition is also full of borderline illegal intangibles that affect performance–knockdowns, HBP’s, starting fistfights, stealing signs, intentional distractions, even intense “ragging” (insults) from the bench. It all depends on how deep you want to go. These types of things are present, to varying degrees, in all sorts of human endeavors.

    I agree with you–it’s impossible to judge all factors to the nth degree. What is OK, what gets thrown out. So look to the overall.

    Yours is the best summation and exposition of this issue that I have seen so far.

  6. One more point. The integrity of the hall of fame is at stake as well. You cannot have a hall of fame without players like Barry Bonds, Arod, and Clemens. Its bad enough Rose isnt in, the all time hits leader, but now you wont have the all time home runs leader as well. These guys werent just the best of their era they are some of the best to ever play the game. You will have a whole generation of players lacking representation.
    It seem to me it is just a way to punish players as I said in the post above. Why are the great players the only ones to be punished for a sport wide issue, that everyone knew about and reaped the awards that went with it?

  7. Baseball is a pretty conservative entity in general, but the Hall of Fame is actually one its corners that has almost no respect for tradition. For decades, baseball has decided that certain people should or shouldn’t be in the Hall and they’ve simply changed the rules of voting to make sure they got what they wanted. When they decide a bunch of old timers they liked weren’t getting in, they created a new way to induct guys to get them in. When that became too much, they changed the rules again. They created special committees through the years that could induct people, including the weird and inaccurate “era” categories of a few years ago. A rule was passed just to keep Pete Rose out. So it’s not accurate to say that changing the rules to exclude some players you don’t want would be changing precedent. It’s pretty much how the Hall has always worked.

  8. All you are saying is others have cheated and gotten in so why not let all the cheaters with good numbers in. I say it’s a shame there are any cheaters in and I’m certainly not going to support more cheaters being let in. The standards of the past were flawed and let some cheaters in; that is not a reason to perpetuate the error and let other cheaters in. I say we move on from the flawed standards of the past (cheaters in HOF, segregated baseball)and try to create a better future if for no other reason, then as an example for our kids.

  9. An entire generation, maybe 2, including Mays, Mantle, Killibrew, the Robinson boys, and many others, ate (or drank) greenies like they were candy. My guess is they had a much more profound (and immediate) effect on the players then PEDs do.

    And saying that Andy is a PEDs user because he used HGH a few times (and HGH is NOT a PED) when injured, is like equating a once-a-week pot smoker to a heroine addict. There are degrees of usage, and a right and wrong way.

    Look at Bond’s, Mac’s and Sosa’s bodies… before and after pictures. They went from skinny guys to monsters. Now look at ARod’s body in 1998, 2003 and 2008. Also identical. Knowing ARod, he propbably used them like a suppository.

    I agree the whole PEDs thing in relation to the HOF is bullsh-t. But if you must judge, you should at least look at the degree. I woudn’t be surprised if at least 1/3 of all players in the 80’s and 90’s did PEDs at least once… while a few made a career of it.

  10. Statistical and medical studies show that PEDs like HGH and steroids do not enhance baseball performance in any measurable way.